IF girls hadn't died in this, we wouldn't have known about it."That was the chilling conclusion in a New York Times article on the rape of 71 schoolgirls in rural Kenya last week. Nineteen of some 270 teenage females at a boarding school were trampled to death trying to flee a dormitory where they had sought refuge from rampaging male students. What ought to concern anyone interested in basic human rights and liberties is the casual attitude about rape, and the unacceptable attitude toward women, taken by too many Kenyans following these deaths. The news account reveals how common - and culturally sanctioned - is the rape of girls by boys who have reached "manhood." Manhood, according to one Kenyan scholar quoted, is a time when males are adult enough to speak to, have sex with, and "beat a woman." If that isn't enough, the deputy principal of the school, Joyce Kithira, made this presumably straight-faced comment about the mass brutality: "The boys never meant any harm against the girls. They just wanted to rape." Despite stirrings of democracy in Africa, this event, in one of Africa's more stable societies, indicates how much progress is still needed on women's rights. In the past 20 years some advances have been made in the West in terms of seeing the better side of Africa, questioning "cultural imperialism," and avoiding the imposition of Western modes and values on African cultures. Yet some rights and values transcend culture. This truth must be faced honestly - particularly when it comes to the personal rights of half the human race. Ingrained attitudes about tribal customs, polygamy, male dominance, and the lesser worth of women must be changed. Exploiting women is universally wrong. This is not just a matter of African women's rights - but also of what African men are taught about themselves and their own need to adhere to certain basic moral laws. Rape is wrong; its tolerance is benighted, whether it occurs on campuses in the US or in Kenyan boarding schools. Ironically, it was in Nairobi in 1985 that 16,000 women from around the world met to wrap up the United Nations' much-touted "Decade of Women." Some 4,000 of those women who traveled there were Africans from a developing middle class of third-world women who are taking the giant cultural step of standing up for themselves. These women need help from Western institutions. As a result of the UN conference, most African countries now, at least on paper, make violence against women a crime. Awareness is building; witness the crusading role of the Kenya Times in reporting these rapes. About 30 Kenyan boys are being held for manslaughter. This may just be governmental window dressing. Only two are charged with rape. Legal and cultural changes based on higher laws must reach the minds of the people - schoolmasters, government officials, tribal leaders - in these countries to prevent further violence against women.